TREE TERMITES

During the mid-1970s, Adrian’s Tree Service was located just outside the main gates of the Algiers Naval station.  Strange procedures were observed in the trees in nearby Behrman Park.  Two inch diameter holes were drilled into the bases of trees and pieces of PVC pipe run into them.  It turned out that the US Forest Service was investigating Formosan termites in the trees.  I found out later that this pest had been brought to the creosote-treated wood dock at the Naval Station on wooden dunnage from the Far East in 1945.

The Algiers Naval Station, New Orleans, 1945

Ground zero for Formosan termites in the U.S.: The Algiers Naval Station, New Orleans, 1945.

The dock was burned when it became infested, but by then the insect had mined into the river bed.  Other 1945 points of introduction were the Poland Ave. Naval facility by the Industrial Canal and the UNO campus area on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  Termites began mining out from these three locations and by the early 1980s were showing up in my clients’ trees.  There was no rule book or instructions for dealing with this pest.  Indeed, most tree people in other parts of the country still doubt that a termite can hollow out live, healthy trees.  I was probably the first person to attempt to drill and treat standing live trees for this pest.  There were no chemical treatments labeled for this use, so I tried Lindane 20 EC, a standard organochlorine that was used to control bark beetles at the time.  Later, Permethrin, Bifentrin, Imidachloprid, Tempo, Termidor and other chemicals were labeled for this use.  We tried most of these and found that a maddeningly high percentage of treated trees soon became reinfested.  Apparently, a very large population of termites associated with infested trees were overcoming the poisons by sheer force of numbers.

Replica of 16th century French Caravelle

Replica of 16th century French Caravelle docked in the Industrial Canal, New Orleans at the exact spot where the levee breached in 2005. This ship became totally infested with Formosan termites while there and had to be scuttled. The infestation in the “Lower 9” must have been epic. Photo taken in 2000.

Jean Schaubhut holding up a quart jar containing thousands of Formosan termites from a tree nest.

Jean Schaubhut holding up a quart jar containing thousands of Formosan termites from a tree nest.

By 1997, I pulled an old file and found that I’d reported on a termite-killing fungus in a paper written to fulfill an assignment by my entomology professor, Roger F. Anderson at Duke back in 1969.  A client of mine, who was a microbiologist at Tulane, provided me with active cultures to test on Formosan termites. I took the cultures home and performed Koch’s Postulates, witnessing impressive kills in just a few hours contact.  Microscopic examination revealed that the termite cadavers were filled with the fungus and shooting spores into their surroundings.  This produced a chain reaction that killed all the termites in the test jar.  Within a few weeks, I drilled and treated my first trees, some Baldcypresses and a sycamore on Montegut St. in the Marigny section of New Orleans.  To this day, they have not become reinfested.  I drastically cut the use of chemicals in termite treatments of trees and used active culture, sometimes mixed with termite-killing roundworms in all my tree treatments.

Our fungus in culture, 100x.

Our fungus in culture, 100x.

Formosan termite leg with our fungus fruiting from the knee joint, 100x.

Formosan termite leg with our fungus fruiting from the knee joint, 100x.

By 2000, the fungus treatments reached into the hundreds and total treatments exceeded 1000 trees.  I tried to develop a database, correlating species of host tree with the size of hidden cavities.  I proudly sent my data to an associate at the Rand Corp. in California.  She reported that, hard as I tried, my data was not significant.  There seemed to be no relation between tree species and hidden cavity size.  There would be no rank-of-hands in tree species susceptibility, so to speak.  I scratched my head in bewilderment.  Since most trees readily accepted a standard 4 gallon dose of insecticide, I became inquisitive as to just HOW MUCH liquid could a hollow tree trunk accept?  I chased a 4 gallon dose with a garden hose for 5 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, 5 hours, 16 hours, 24 hours……whoops, in a few cases water was bubbling out of the ground, maybe 50 yards away.  But, a lot of the time, the hose just kept running at full blast until I decided to turn it off.  When I tried this on a few “hopeless cases” where termites were returning repeatedly after many standard termite treatments, I was able to rid the area with 10,000 gallons of fungus-laced water.  But, another funny thing happened.  Entomologists working for various government programs seemed to shun me.  A retired scientist actually told me that I’d been ‘blackballed” by the USDA.  The local newspapers wouldn’t mention any of this and by 2000 the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry launched a $7million tree termite eradication program.  The effort featured standard chemicals and residential applicators who had no experience with trees.  No effort was made to document trees that had been destabilized by termites and needed quick removal.  No effort was made to diagnose IF the treated trees were actually infested.  Simply, all curbside trees in a 5 parish area were drilled and treated infested or not.  Later examination of drill holes showed that most were not drilled deeply enough to contact the internal cavity.  Palm trees were indiscriminately drilled, leaving permanent, suppurating trunk wounds.  But, with only 7 percent of our trees actually infested, the State of Louisiana could claim a 93% success rate!  At the time, Dr. Cedric Sydney completed his dissertation of the termite situation at UNO, concluding that my treatment methods made the most sense and should be adopted by the state.

4-foot drill bit.

Harrington demonstrating depth of drill hole at Sophie Wright School, Sept. 2009, 4-foot drill bit.

Drill hole penetrates 3 feet of solid oil before hitting grapefruit-sized termite cavity.

Drill hole penetrates 3 feet of solid oil before hitting grapefruit-sized termite cavity.

Live oak at Sophie Wright School, New Orleans, rigged with connecting water hoses.

Live oak at Sophie Wright School, New Orleans, rigged with connecting water hoses, Sept. 2009. Pump sprayer and bottle of termite-fungus solution in foreground. Six trees accepted 60,000 gallons of water and halted decades-old infestation of the building.

Adrian drilling city-owned Live Oak tree in front of Sophie Wright School, New Orleans, Sept. 2009.

Adrian drilling city-owned Live Oak tree in front of Sophie Wright School, New Orleans, Sept. 2009.

To this date, this matter has never been resolved.  There is no standard for tree safety when termite cavities are present – except the Adrian’s Tree Service termite database.  Out-of-state tree experts still claim that none of this is actually happening.  It must be a figment of our imaginations.  But, I kept soldiering on, recommended by word-of-mouth from an endless chain of satisfied customers, putting over 3000 trees in my database.

Then came Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2005.  We evacuated to Baton Rouge for 3 weeks, and in the heat of summer, my cultures died.  No matter.  There was plenty of tree work to do and I brought in crews from Ohio, Oklahoma and Quebec.  Friends came in from Montana and the U.K. to help out and we were roaring ahead with tree removals for almost a year.

I recovered the fungus, actually three native isolates from a herbarium, shipped through an associate at LSU and resumed tree treatments and……LO………my database showed that termite activity, particularly the biggest acceptors of water were clustered near the four levee breaches.  Apparently, Formosan termites, connected to tree cavities had been mining under the levees and under the canal, river and lake beds.  One of my big water oaks stood within 100 yards of the 17th street canal breach.  I found active termites in a live oak at the Bruning’s Restaurant site 300 yards north and a piece of creosote piling pulled from Lake Pontchartrain nearby.  The outside of the piling had barnacles on it; the inside had a termite run.  Termites were mining upward from the lake bed into this creosote piling.  This piece of wood lies in my shop to this very day.  Other evidence from the three other broken levee sections has piled up.  My theory is that the wind uprooted key trees, released pressure from the underground warrens and the sea water, pushed by a 20-foot surge – rolled in.  The city of New Orleans will go down in history as a place destroyed by an introduced insect pest.

Cresote-treated wood pilings

Cresote-treated wood pilings at ferry landing foot of Canal St., New Orleans. These pilings have been mined by termites upward from warrens under the bed of the Mississippi River.

Creosote piling pulled from Lake Pontchartrain

Piece of creosote piling pulled from Lake Pontchartrain, 300 yards from the 17th St. Canal, location of the breach during Hurricane Katrina, August 2005. Barnacles on the outside, termites on the inside, showing mining from the lake bed upwards.

Scouting for termites –   Termites are cryptic.  They are hard to find, hard to realize that millions may be underfoot.  A first sign is swarming. In the springtime, winged kings and queens emerge by the thousands, mate and search for new homes for their brood.  They all have characteristic thin, flat same-size double wings.  That is the characteristic that gave the name to their order: Isoptera.  Unlike flying ants, termites have broad waists and are a bit more delicate.  In Louisiana, Native Reticulitermes termites swarm by day in the month of March.  If you dig into a mass of termites in a piece of wood, the soldiers – the fellows that have the pinchers in front – have rectangular head capsules.  Though devastating to homes in most of America, these natives have relatively small colonies in the earth – up to 500 gallons or so.

Formosan termite nest in butt log of Baldcypress, (Taxodium distichum) tree.

Formosan termite nest in butt log of Baldcypress, (Taxodium distichum) tree.

Soldier Formosan termites emerging from freshly-drilled hole in tree.

Soldier Formosan termites emerging from freshly-drilled hole in tree.

Formosan termites, ( Coptotermes) swarm at twilight in the months of May and June in Louisiana.  Swarms may be huge, appearing as millions of snowflakes around the lights.  Homeowners turn off all the lights and the TV to keep them out of the house at swarming time.  They penetrate walls and cracks in window sills and wingless, die by the dozens in sinks and bath tubs.  They are more attracted by lights in the blue spectrum and standard mosquito traps will zap them.  During an event, hit the traps every 15 minutes or so to clear cadavers off the screen.  Since alates don’t fly too far and they are develop at a fixed rate to the workers underground, swarming activity is a crude measure of how many termites mine underfoot.  I always ask my clients to compare swarming activity in May after a treatment with swarming activity the year before.  This is the best measure of how effective my treatments have been. Tree colonies can be large, up to basketball size.  They resemble egg carton material and are boiling with millions of termites.  In the mass of insects, you will see many brown-headed soldiers with pinchers.  The head capsules of these soldiers will be round.  Termite species can also be identified from dirt tubes on pieces of wood, fences or the bark of trees.  Natives are common on pine bark in the south, but are not invasive.  Formosans on pine bark suggest that there may be a cavity inside.  Research with blue-dyed workers by the N.O. Mosquito and Termite Control Board showed that termites from a single tree in Lafayette Park in downtown New Orleans mined under St. Charles Avenue and infested Gallier Hall across the street.  Subterranean runs can easily go 100 yards or more.  This makes scouting and treatment of trees around homes imperative.

Formosan termite alates swarming around a bug zapper at twilight in New Orleans, May-June.

Formosan termite alates swarming around a bug zapper at twilight in New Orleans, May-June.

Drywood termites (Incisitermes) can have very small colonies located throughout a home.  An entire colony can be located somewhere in a 1 x 4.  Their presence is confirmed by black, powdery droppings on the furniture or on the floor.  They are very small and the alates are black.  An old house may have hundreds of little colonies scattered about.  Standard pest control practice calls for fumigation which can be expensive.  I have experimentally treated homes of friends with the termite fungus and have apparently rid their homes of the pest, but…..my license does not cover household pests and I refuse commercial work.  Also, this fungus may be a hazard to certain people and it is not a good idea to bring it indoors.

Formosan termintes in the center of an infested tree. Workers, soldiers and immature alates are visible.

Formosan termintes in the center of an infested tree. Workers, soldiers and immature alates are visible.

Termites are the biggest insect cash crop in the United States.  Damage in New Orleans alone is estimated at $300 million annually.  Nationwide, it runs in the billions.  It is a cash cow for the chemical pesticide industry and is ensconced in the legal system with mandatory termite inspection during home sales.  Traditional treatments include barrier treatments, wood preservation and baiting with non-repellent termiticides.  Barrier treatments are designed to keep termites OUT of our homes.  Chlordane was the chemical of choice because it was very resistant to degradation in the soil and could hang around in the environment for 30 years or more.  But, it is a known carcinogen, causes damage to the environment precisely because it doesn’t degrade.  It is banned in the United States.  New generation barrier treatment chemicals degrade in 4-5 years.  These chemicals work mostly by repelling the mining activity of termites, rather than killing whole colonies outright.  Millions of termites could be working under a house, just a few feet below a chemical barrier.  Therefore, homeowners need to renew their barrier treatments often, and not settle into complacency about termites.  It is a good idea to book stand-alone termite inspection of your home annually.  A Formosan swarm can eat the entire wooden back wall off a house in just 3 weeks.  The newer non-repellent termiticides allow foraging termites to carry the poison to the nest and – hopefully – kill the queen and the rest of the nest.  Bait systems, regularly monitored, can accomplish this.  In New Orleans, where the termite population is extreme, bait systems can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of termites and may fail to attract a large termite warren nearby.  Treated lumber is also suspect in the world of Formosan termites.  This species can actually occupy and digest creosote telephone poles and railroad ties.  They can eat foam insulation and the plastic insulation from buried electrical cables.  New Orleans sits atop a 400 foot deposit of alluvium with huge strata of buried, prehistoric wood.  The Formosan termite has been mining this nearly unlimited resource for 60 years.  These termites can operate anaerobically in deep levels of the earth, reducing cellulose to carbon dioxide and methane gas.

The Indianapolis poster - Presented at the Entomological Society convention Indianapolis 2007.

The Indianapolis poster – Presented at the Entomological Society convention Indianapolis 2007.

 

After termite gut microflora have broken the b 1 – 4 cellulose bond to yield pure glucose (C6 H12 O6):

C6 H12 O6    ——    3CO2 +   3CH4

After adding thousands of gallons of water to a tree cavity, one can easily see how a levee system could be flanked by miles of open space deep in the earth, where solid material has been replaced by greenhouse gases due to termite metabolism.  A single queen lives for 20 years and produces thousands of offspring daily, each of whom live an average of 2 years.  Multiple queen colonies expanding in an unlimited source of cellulose can reach astronomical size.  Any alluvial location in the southern U.S. faces the same threat.

Service rates for drilling and treating a tree are $260. for the first tree including hazard analysis and $120. for each additional tree. Pricing on large groups of trees, or in park-like settings with poor access to water will be negotiated.

Read about the underground and hidden world of termites in our Termite World (PDF) pamphlet!

Termite World

 

Treating a tree with no access to water or electricity with 300 gallons of "Pork'n'Beans".

Treating a tree with no access to water or electricity with 300 gallons of “Pork’n’Beans”.

 

Treating a tree with no access to water or electricity: 300 gallons of “Pork’n’beans” solution is pumped from plastic barrels in the back of the truck through a small water pump that is hooked to the battery to a green garden hose connected to the drill hole. Electric generator is in front. Magazine St., Garden District of New Orleans, 2014.